May is the month when the miracles of avian life are most abundantly on display. One way to step outside of our worries and strivings is to pause and pay attention. All around us, birds are singing, mating, nest building and tending young.
Last weekend a tiny, brown bushtit flew past me into the branches of a neighbor’s large buddleia bush.
The 4½-inch bird disappeared, not 10 feet from my head.
I craned my neck to look up into the grey-green leaves and dried flower stalks. It took several moments to locate a lichen-camouflaged hanging nest, which resembled an old sock.
The nest’s narrow top fastened to a forked branch. The “toe” of the nest swelled out and I imagined five or six babies safely stashed in the bottom. This architectural, engineering and aesthetic masterpiece swung gently in the breeze, an integral part of the bush.
Bird nests continually fascinate me. Even a common robin’s nest displays painstaking attention to gathering and weaving together twigs, grasses, moss and leaves. The nest is lined with mud, to give strength, and softened with feathers for insulation. The entire house-building task is completed in four to five days.
Some of the most easily seen nests belong to Barn Swallows, since they place them on the sides of our houses and outbuildings. To gather their construction materials, the swallow pair must take about 1,200 trips with a mouthful of mud.
Woodpeckers place their eggs in tree cavities. It is estimated that it takes a woodpecker 100,000 taps to excavate out a hole, a task that they complete in 10 to 21 days. Many woodpeckers use their nest cavity for only one year, and carve out a new one every breeding season.
Most songbirds build a new nest every spring. But many of the larger members of the avian family reuse their nests year after year. Succeeding generations of a species might continue to use the same nest.
An osprey nest in California was occupied consecutively for 45 years. A large platform nest of a White Stork in Germany housed young from 1549-1930.
Some well-constructed nests are the envy of other birds. In Connecticut, one nest was utilized by four different species in four consecutive years. A Cooper’s Hawk built the nest. The next year it was inhabited by a Great-horned Owl; the following year, a Red-tailed Hawk couple moved in. Finally, a Barred Owl took over.
Birds are opportunistic in their choice of materials, both natural and man-made. I’ve seen an Osprey nest intertwined with scavenged bright blue plastic line. One Warbling Vireo nest in California was made entirely of facial tissue. Barbed wire has been used for all but the lining of a raven’s nest. And a hummingbird’s nest was woven of fiberglass insulation.
A pair of California Canyon Wrens built their nest on the beam of an office building. Using available items, they added paper clips, thumbtacks and rubber bands to the 1,791 items employed to construct the nest.
At this time of year, most birds are busy with nest building and feeding young. If you watch carefully, you can locate where the birds are nesting.
Resist the temptation to go close to or look inside a nest. Your actions leave a scent and signal to predators the location of the nest. After my first discovery of the bushtit nest, I stayed away.
It’s particularly important to keep cats indoors at this time of year.
If you want to examine some nests up close, with no harm to the birds, stop by the Brackenwood Gallery in Langley. Their current show, which runs to the end of the month, is entitled “Oh Spring!” and includes amazing handcrafted nests by Sharon Spencer. Some are made of natural fibers and look as if a bird will be returning to it shortly. Others are one-of-a-kind bronzes.
Spencer’s nests are surrounded by a spring garden of watercolor flowers and landscapes by Nola Allen. Janie Cribbs contributed bird paintings, and Sara Saltee incorporates bird images into her multi-media pieces.
Usually, I send you out into nature to experience it directly. But this once, I urge you to leave the real nests alone and instead enjoy them at close range inside the Brackenwood Gallery.
You are even allowed to touch them.
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